Surfing smoothly in Saudi
Saudi officials have introduced plans to promote e-media in the kingdom. But will web journalists enjoy the right to free speech?
March 18, 2009 12:48 by Aarti Nagraj
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Information and Culture has announced that it will promote e-media in the kingdom by providing a system of regulations. “This system will make clear the rules under which e-journalism can operate,” said Abdurrahman Al Hazza’a, senior official in the ministry.
Journalists have been pushing for the creation of an official electronic newspaper industry, but they needed official support, reports the Saudi Gazette.
“E-journalism has been around since the late 1990s, but it has never had any official approval. The former Minister of Information and Culture described it as a phenomenon that needed to be discussed,” Abdullah Balbaid, editor-in-chief of Saudi-based Radians Information Network told the paper.
He added that e-journalism was still considered a risk as there is no clear definition of journalists’ rights and responsibilities.
Recent reports suggest the Saudi government has been stringent with its internet censorship. A local blogger, Fouad al Farhan, was jailed last year for writing about political reforms.
In March 2007, Saudi Arabia also adopted an e-crimes act to tackle cyber-crime. Under the legislation, offenders can face years up to 10 years in prison and fines of SR5 million ($1.3 million) for crimes such as online identity theft and running extremist websites.
However rights activists feel that the legislation could threaten free speech in the country.
A report in Menassat.com explains article 6, claiming the law prohibits “producing content which violates general order, religious values, public morals or sanctity of private life, or preparing it, or sending it, or storing it via the network or a computer.”
According to a report in Human Rights Watch in May 2008, web critic Ra’if Badawi was charged with “setting up an electronic site that insults Islam.” The prosecution service in Jeddah referred the case to court, asking for a five-year prison sentence and a fine of SR3 million ($800,000). Badawi’s website detailed abuses by the Saudi religious police, and questioned the predominant interpretation of Islam.
The Human Rights report also claimed that several people hacked Badawi’s website, and published his phone numbers, work address, as well as posting threats against Badawi on the website.
Soon afterwards, Badawi reportedly fled the kingdom.
A report in Business Week published last year alleged that while the country’s Communications & Information Technology Commission (CITC) uses software to block clear-cut violations, such as pornographic websites and gambling, it relies on citizens to have sites blocked. Saudi residents reportedly send in roughly 1,200 requests a day for specific sites to be blocked. CITC takes action on about half of those requests, a source told the magazine.
While it’s a noteworthy step by the kingdom to encourage e-media, will journalists have to think twice before they publish content online? Will they suddenly find their sites blocked? Or will the Saudi authorities give online media more freedom of speech.